Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain

Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.

I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.

I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.

Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.

Table of Contents

After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.

Metal Gear Solid V - three days to rescue Miller
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...

At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!

This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.

... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.

Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of...

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Silent Hill 4: the Room

While I was playing through recent horror titles like The Evil Within, I noticed some interesting similarities with Silent Hill 4 that started to give me a new appreciation for some of this game's stronger aspects. In addition, while doing research for my Silent Hill timeline, I had to go back and play through Silent Hill 4: the Room again. I had only played through the game twice before, so I had to replay it in order to figure out how the timeline would work out. And while I was playing the game, I figured that I might as well go ahead and review it. At the time, it seemed like a novel idea to do a retro review of a Silent Hill game that wasn't Silent Hill 2, but lately, I've been seeing a lot of retro-reviews of The Room popping up other places. I haven't done any retro reviews yet; probably the closest thing has been my review of Demon's Souls. But in light of how unsuccessful the later Silent Hill games have been, the unfortunate cancellation of Silent Hills, and the uncertain future of the franchise, it's a good time to go back to look at what worked and what didn't about the previous games, and explore the question of whether we even want the franchise to continue.

The Room has the reputation of being the "bad" black sheep of the original Silent Hill tetralogy. I always thought that this reputation was unfortunate, and that the game wasn't quite as bad as people made it seem. I actually liked it better than Silent Hill 3 up until I was able to track down a copy of the first game and play through it (at which point, Silent Hill 3 suddenly made a whole lot more sense). The release of future games by third party developers has only made The Room look better in retrospect.

An experimental formula

The game itself is a bit rough around the edges. It deviates significantly from the controls and mechanics established by the previous games in the franchise, and these changes are very hit-or-miss. This might be due, in part, to the possibility that The Room started out as an independent side project that was developed concurrently with Silent Hill 3, and that was eventually redesigned to work as a Silent Hill game in order to be more commercially viable. Whether or not that's true is still a hot issue of debate among the fanbase, but it's obvious to everybody that The Room plays a lot differently from previous titles.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - combat
Movement and combat controls are radically changed from previous games in the series.

The most immediately obvious deviation is in movement and camera controls. The semi-first-person "tank" controls have been completely abandoned in favor of direct directional inputs, and the camera is significantly more limited than it has been in previous games. You can't snap the camera behind the character by holding the "look" button as you could do in previous games. Almost all camera angles are pre-set angles, and the player can usually only toggle between two possible camera angles in any given area.

This results in some very clumsy navigation of the environment, and it's very easy for the character to get turned around when camera angles flip. Most of the time, a camera change will go without a hitch, but there are a few frames in the game that consistently result in erratic and unpredictable movement. It happens most often when a camera change occurs concurrently with a change in direction of the character (to navigate around a corner or an obstacle). If the player's timing for changing the character's movement direction is not perfectly-timed, then the character ends up turning around, which can result in getting stuck in a loop between the two camera angles. This is the very reason that I prefer the tank controls. They may be a bit cumbersome, but at least they're consistent and always relative to a single frame of reference (the character's position in the world), rather than to an unpredictable camera.

The second major change is to combat. The game was designed to have a greater emphasis on melee combat, complete with new target-locking controls, a variety of breakable melee weapons, very limited ammunition for guns, and an on-screen meter for charging power attacks. The new movement controls do make it a bit easier to maneuver around enemies (especially multiple enemies), but only if you're in an open space and the camera angle doesn't go all wonky on you. The mechanics are serviceable, and I don't think they're as bad as some critics insist.

The designers were probably trying to mimic
the horror trope of fumbling for keys.

Inventory management is where things really start to get bad. Henry isn't a walking closet like the previous games' protagonists, and he has only a limited number of inventory slots. This is probably partly the result of the inventory being accessed in real-time by the directional buttons (which also might have played a role in the changes to the movement control scheme being entirely based up on the analog stick), in a desire to create a sense of frantically searching your pockets for a weapon or item while under pressure. It also adds more relevance to the Room 302 hub (another dramatic departure from previous games) by forcing you to go back to restock on supplies or swap out puzzle items.

But it's hindered by a lot of little mistakes. Identical items do not stack. Every individual health drink, med kit, and box of bullets takes up its own entire inventory slot. Bringing a melee weapon, a firearm, a single box of spare ammo, and a healing item or two easily takes up half your inventory. That's fine, until you start collecting more ammo and healing items in the world, and you quickly run out of space. And the game doesn't give you any way to drop an item from your inventory. So if you find a desperately-needed med kit, but your inventory is full of useless golf clubs and puzzle items, you have to travel all the way back to the last portal to the safe room, or risk pushing on ahead and hoping nothing kills you. This can result in a lot of backtracking to Room 302 and really slows down the pace of the game. The fact that many melee weapons can break means that I also never bother to use those weapons. The default steel pipe that you get early in the game never breaks, rendering the numerous golf clubs, wine bottles, and other such breakable weapons moot. I would recommend not even picking them up. And once I get the hand axe (which also never breaks), then the pipe gets retired into my item box also.

Other mechanical changes, such as the first-person segments in Room 302, the lack of a flashlight or radio, and so on fall more into the category of "different" for me, without necessarily being better or worse. The lack of a flashlight does mean that darkness doesn't play a role in the game at all, and your view of the environment is rarely restricted. So this game doesn't have the "what the heck is that?" factor that the previous games (particularly 1 and 3) nailed so well. The removal of the radio also makes sense (to me) as having emerged from the real-time inventory and focus on melee combat. Warning the player about incoming enemies (the radio's primary function in past games) would only lessen the "fumbling for your keys (or weapon)" sense that the inventory system was trying to evoke.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - nightmare stairwell
Henry must dive into the nightmare of a serial killer.

While I wouldn't want a Silent Hill game to be played entirely in first person, I do think that the first person perspective in Room 302 actually does add something to the game...

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In the comments of a recent post about Silent Hill 2's Otherworld, I had a discussion with a reader about the time period in which the Silent Hill games take place. This is actually an interesting and difficult topic, so I thought that I would dedicate a post specifically to it.

First and foremost, let's remind ourselves of when the games were released:

Game titleOriginal release
Silent Hill coverSilent HillJanuary 1999
Silent Hill 2 coverSilent Hill 2September 2001
Silent Hill 3 coverSilent Hill 3May 2003
Silent Hill 4 coverSilent Hill 4: the RoomSeptember 2004

Contemporary fiction

It is very important to note that no specific dates ever appear in any of the Silent Hill games that were developed by Konami's internal Team Silent studio. If dates are provided, they are either only the month and day (and not the year), or they are time periods relative to the events of the game (such as referring to the "events of 17 years ago" in Silent Hill 3), or it is just the year of an historical event in the past (such as the document about the sinking of the Little Baroness). Even documents that you would expect to have dates (such as newspapers, journals, diaries, patient reports, and police records) are intentionally left dateless (or at least ambiguous).

In Silent Hill 2, there is a point in which James finds newspapers scattered around a hallway. Upon examining the floor or walls, James comments that the newspapers have today's date. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the developers to provide a specific date for the game, if they wanted to. They could have had James read the date on the paper to the player, or the paper itself (with its date) could have been made clearly visible. The developers didn't do this; they left it completely ambiguous.

Silent Hill 2 - labyrinth newspapers
James notes that these newspapers have today's date, but doesn't tell us what the date is.

The developers went out of their way to not provide any specific dates for the games. Why would they do this? Typically, works of fiction that are not set in particular time period are written to be contemporary. Unless otherwise specified, most works of fiction should be assumed to take place now with respect to the consumption of the work by its audience, regardless of when "now" happens to be. if it's not contemporary to consumption, then it's usually contemporary to creation. This is usually pretty obvious if the work contains detailed descriptions of locations, technologies, and events that can be easily dated.

If we look at the original Silent Hill game in a vacuum, then the game provides no internal indication that it takes place at any specific time period. Players in 1999 probably had no reason to believe that the game took place in any year other than 1999. The same is true for Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4: if looked at in a vacuum, they can all be considered to take place in the same year that they were released. And if you didn't even know the year that the game was released, there's very little within the games to indicate that they take place at any time other than now.

However, this assumption falls apart because there is an absolute time difference of seventeen years between the events of the first game and the events of the third game, even though the difference in time between releases of the games was only four years. So we can't assume that each game takes place in the year of its release. At least one game has to be shifted on the timeline. So which game (or games) should be assumed to have taken place at which times?

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I frequently hear people bring up the infamous Fukuro video as a counter to my essay on why Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head isn't a rapist. I haven't addressed this issue in the past because I actually don't know that much about the video or its creation. But I thought I would take a moment to address this issue. First off, let's watch the video in question (warning: contains disturbing content that may not be suitable for sensitive viewers).

This video was made by a small group of Team Silent members, most notably, Masahiro Ito and Akira Yamaoka, and it was included in a documentary DVD titled The Art of Silent Hill. There isn't really much information about this video on the internet other than speculation. As far as I know, Ito and Yamaoka have never made any public statements regarding its relevance to the canon of the games. When asked about the symbolism of the video on Twitter, Ito responded that it abstractly represented the womb.

Does an abstract representation of the womb have any relevance to Silent Hill 2? Not at all. It does, however, have strong ties to Silent Hill 3. In fact, the Fukuro girl character does make a brief appearance in Silent Hill 3! Perhaps Team Silent already had basic designs and outlines in place for Silent Hill 3 when they started work on Silent Hill 2, and the Fukuro video incorporated elements of both?

Fukuro's wiki page asserts that she was a scrapped monster from Silent Hill 2, however no citation is included for this claim, so I can't verify it. The wiki page goes on [without citation] to claim that Fukuro might have been another representation of James' subconscious (along with Pyramid Head). If that is true, then she may have been scrapped because the nurses and / or Maria may have made Fukuro's role superfluous and unnecessary.

Silent Hill 3 - Fukuro Lady
the Fukuro Lady appears briefly in an elevator scene in Silent Hill 3.

In any case, if Fukuro had been planned to be a monster symbolic of Jame's repressed sexual frustration, then it seems even less likely that Pyramid Head would also have represented the same element of Jame's subconscious! Pyramid Head and Fukuro's interactions in the Fukuro video could be symbolic of James' sexual desires being a source of guilt for which he wants punishment. In that case, guilt and sexual repression are still separate conditions represented by different manifested creatures that reinforce each other.

Fukuro's necessity in Silent Hill 2 was rendered moot by both Maria and the design of the nurses. It is possible that at some point during the game's design, Pyramid Head's role was intended to be different, and to be more representative of Jame's sexual urges. This could explain the creatures' visual design and the early cutscenes of him "raping" monsters. But as the game's development proceeded, Fukuro was dropped, Maria and nurses were added, and Pyramid Head's role became more explicitly representative of James' guilt and need for self-punishment as a result of Mary's death.

The bottom line is that the Fukuro video and Fukuro character are not in the actual game. At least not in Silent Hill 2. Masahiro Ito may very well believe that Pyramid Head is a sexually-symbolic monster, and he may very well have designed the creature with its Freudian aesthetic with that assumption in place. But for whatever reason, the scenario-writers decided not to pursue that avenue for the remainder of the game. Any lingering sexual symbolism for Pyramid Head is dropped within a couple hours of starting the game, and his role as a punisher is explicitly stated at the end of the game. At best, sexual aggression is a minor, implicit element of Pyramid Head's design; it is certainly not a defining characteristic of the creature, nor is it the creature's primary purpose.

A similar video was also made for Silent Hill 3, and features Robbie the Rabbit. This video also has no relevance to that game's plot.

[More]

Not much has been seen of Hideo Kojima's Silent Hills since the Tokyo Game Show trailer last September. And now it looks like we might not be seeing any more from it any time soon. Or ever.

The latest news in the gaming world is that Hideo Kojima (and his studio Kojima Productions) is splitting from Konami. And it's a little early for April Fools... Apparently, the split is not amicable, as Konami has stripped Kojima's name from Metal Gear Solid V marketing material and that Kojima and his staff are now working as contractors to finish that game. Apparently, Konami and Kojima are planning on finishing Metal Gear Solid V, but Silent Hills may not be so fortunate.

Kojima interview
Will Kojima and his team be able to continue working on Silent Hills after leaving Konami?

Whatever happened at Konami, the company may have made a monumentally bad decision in forcing Kojima out. He has consistently delivered some of the best performing games that the company has ever made. On top of that, he has surrounded himself with a talented staff that have proven capable of developing solid game engines from scratch in order to make their games as technically-impressive as possible. Konami may be losing all of these resources.

But Konami is likely keeping the rights to the intellectual properties of Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill. It's possible that Konami might hire Kojima Productions as a contractor to continue Silent Hills (as they are apparently doing with Metal Gear Solid V), since the game uses Kojima's proprietary Fox Engine. But even then, if the developers and the publisher / IP-holder do not have a comfortable working arrangement, then the quality of the game may suffer considerably due to the competing interests of the two companies. And if Konami pushes on with development of Silent Hills without Kojima and his Fox Engine, then the final product will likely be a disaster.

Another possibility is that Kojima Productions could buy the IP rights to Metal Gear Solid and / or Silent Hill. I think that's very unlikely, considering that both franchises are cash-cows for Konami.

I also wouldn't be surprised if Sony makes a move to acquire Kojima and his studio to make first party content, since his Metal Gear Solid games were a premiere console-selling exclusive for the PlayStation. If that happens, and Kojima's studio is allowed to continue work on Silent Hills, then the game would likely become a PS4 exclusive. That's if the three companies can come to agreements with one another to begin with.

The last possibility is that Kojima Productions could continue to work on Silent Hills as their first independent game, but without the Silent Hill naming rights from Konami. It's unclear just how much (if at all) Silent Hills' plot was dependent on the established canon of the Silent Hill series. Since the P.T. demo and Tokyo Game Show trailer didn't show anything that specifically tied the game to Silent Hill in anything but name, this may not have much of an impact on the final product if it has to go forward without the IP.

At least one source has stated that Silent Hills has, in fact, been canceled. But I'm still waiting for more concrete clarification from Konami and / or Kojima before I give up hope.

In any case, it's too early to say anything about the future of Silent Hills with any certainty. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this story as it develops.

UPDATE: May 01, 2015, 12:00 am: Silent Hills has been officially canceled, petitioners demand Kojima finish the game

We all knew it would happen, and towards the end of April, Konami and Del Toro finally admitted that Silent Hills has been officially canceled. No real surprise here, but it is very unfortunate news. Del Toro verified on Twitter that the project "isn't gonna happen", a fact that "breaks [his] greasy heart.". Konami has also confirmed officially that the game's development has been discontinued.

This news hasn't stopped petitioners from requesting that Kojima continue development of the game. Sorry guys, but Kojima and Del Toro aren't the ones in charge! Konami is pulling the strings, and Konami doesn't want anything to do with Kojima. The only reason that Metal Gear Solid V is happening is that the game is practically already done. Having Kojima continue to work on it is just a formality. Silent Hills doesn't even seem as if it had started primary development, so Konami isn't losing much (if any) investment by canceling the project.

That being said, I did sign the petition. P.T. and what was shown of Silent Hills looked very promising from a horror gaming standpoint (not so promising as a "Silent Hill" game), and I was looking forward to the game being released. Feel free to sign the petition yourself; although, I doubt that it will have any efficacy.

Damn shame.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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